The Worst Racism

Jenni White, columnist at The Federalist

I learned about Jenni White while reading White Tears/Brown Scars by Ruby Hamad. White has caused a bit of a stir with her column – “The Worst Racism My Children Have Experienced Came from Black Peers.” So I went looking because I also read that she had adopted 2 daughters from Zambia.

Hamad wrote – White claimed to be raising her daughters in a house that does not see color and wrote, “Why would I raise them to identify with a specific race as if being members of the human race weren’t enough?” Hamad says, It is as if she believes that racism will disappear, if only Black people stop calling themselves Black ?

What White defined as hideous racism included their Black pastor asking her whether she was educating the girls about their culture. While she claims to be a staunch believer in Martin Luther King, her perspective is that once her daughters were brought to America, “they became Americans. Not African-Americans, not black girls.” Hamad judges that assimilation and absorption into the default that is whiteness continues to be the frame from which many white women view women of other races.

So, now I will read Jenni White’s column and share with you what I think about it. She begins with the story of McKenzie Adams, a fourth grader from US Jones Elementary School in Demopolis, Alabama, who was despondent after relentless taunting by other black children for her relationship with a white child. McKenzie hanged herself in her family’s home. White acknowledges that suicides which are the result of school bullying have risen steadily over the years, it was McKenzie’s death that spoke to her on a very personal level.

She goes on to share how she ended up adopting her daughters. “In the summer of 2005, while visiting my grandparents in the northeast, my husband and I met up with my cousin, an international teacher, and his new wife, whom he’d met while teaching in Zambia, Africa. In recounting her history, Justina told us of the very recent death of her sister and how her 21-year-old nephew was struggling to feed and care for five siblings as young as 2.”

She admits that “We knew that adopting two little girls (4 and 9) from the other side of the world into a family of two boys (4 and 2) wouldn’t be easy in terms of bonding and re-assimilating the family birth order structure, but it was the stuff like what little McKenzie Adams experienced that we didn’t see coming, and it quickly blindsided me.”

So, the Black pastor incident occurred in a grocery store. The pastor is a Black woman. The pastor talked about how important it was for White to get the girls subscriptions to “black” magazines and to make sure and watch “black” movies and TV shows so they could see and relate to people of their color. She felt that, Jenni, as a white woman, couldn’t be expected to understand the “black experience” in America. That she needed to be sure and make appropriate and relevant material accessible so the girls could better assimilate with black culture.

White responded about raising all of her kids as Americans. The pastor believed White’s thought process was unfortunate. Her “whiteness” would be unable to process the facts that her girls’ fate would always balance at the pinnacle of someone else’s prejudicial small-mindedness. The pastor felt strongly that it was up to White to make the girls aware of the discrimination that was sure to come their way.

White brings her story up to date by writing – Today, my daughters are 21 and 16. She writes that it continually shocks her that any real racism her children have encountered has come from their black contemporaries. She also admits that the 21-year-old had enough of an emotional struggle that she returned to Africa to live with her brother and finish high school. Then, the girl did come back to Oklahoma after graduation, joined the National Guard, and began college with the intention of becoming a nurse.

She goes on to describe the other girl as innately conservative and that she struggled with the constant racial politics in her college English class. The girl had been assigned to write a paper regarding disproportionate brutality by police toward black Americans. White says that her daughter is frustrated that so many black contemporaries have razzed her because her last name is White and she was adopted by a white family. When Jenni asked her how she dealt with that kind of thing, she just shrugged her shoulders and said, “What are you going to do?”

She shares a story about when a Black boy called her older daughter the n word. She told him she was in no way an “n-word.” He answered, “Hey, we’re both from Africa.” Her response to that was “I’m from Africa. You’re from Oklahoma, and I’m no ‘n-word.’” Her daughter also said that this same kid has mocked her about hanging around white kids, including her white boyfriend, who is also on the football team, as well as acting and speaking like she is “white.”

Jenni White says that she follows the Blexit movement. I had never heard of it. They are clearly against CRT (Critical Race Theory) since they indicate that on their home page and I have included their link to that document. I am not going to read all 24 pages. The document seeks to explain CRT this way – Critical Race Theorists … believe that people of color experience racism daily … that the majority of American society, or more specifically white people, have no interest in stopping this so-called oppression because it benefits white Americans. The Blexit movement claims their intention is to uplift and empower minorities to realize the American Dream. In truth, it is only that so far – a dream unrealized for most.

I’m white. I do not raise any black children and I do have strong feelings about the adoption of children of color by white adoptive parents. I really can’t judge anyone else, including Jenni White, regarding how parents decide to raise their children. It is a complex world. I grew up with no racial bias, even though I am white, because both of my parents were adoptees with no knowledge of their genetic origins. We were raised only knowing we were Americans. I used to joke that I was an Albino African because back then, even I didn’t actually know for certain. My mom did discover she had a smidgeon of genes from Mali when she had a DNA analysis done. I can agree with Jenni White’s hope – that someday differences are celebrated within the context of the whole, and not parsed out as weapons of contention and conflict.

A Deep Yearning

From the time my mom tried to get her adoption file out of the state of Tennessee in the early 1990s, I had a deep yearning, same as she did, to know who ? Who were my grandparents ? Actually, there was an unconscious version back in my public school days when everyone was going around saying things like – “I’m French.” or “I’m German.” When I asked my mom what are we ? She said “American.” I said I know that but what else ? She said we don’t know because both your dad and I were adopted. Later in life I would tell people that I was an Albino African because no one, including my own self, could prove any different. One birthday, my brother in law gave me a National Genographic test kit. I ran my maternal line. Turns out we (humans) all originated in Africa, at least according to that National Geographic project.

That lead to me wanting something more specific than the disappointing degree of information I got from that effort. I ordered an Ancestry DNA kit on the recommendation of a friend, only to discover my mom had already done hers and what do you know – trace amounts from Mali. There’s my African for you. My mom attempted a family tree but because the only information she could build one on was the adoptive families, she told me at one point, “I just had to quit, it wasn’t real because I was adopted, oh well.” It is so sad.

The state of Tennessee did open the adoption files for the victims of the Georgia Tann scandal less than 10 years after my mom’s futile attempt but no one told her. That is also sad because even though the state broke my mom’s heart by telling her that her mother had died some years before, they didn’t try very hard to determine the status of her father (their basis for denying her) who had already been dead for 30 years. Had my mom received her adoption file, she would have seen a black and white photo of her mom holding her as an infant – probably for the last time at Porter Leath Orphanage in Memphis, who she turned to for temporary care as she tried to get on her own two feet financially. The supervisor there betrayed my grandmother to Georgia Tann. The truth and factual details could have brought my mom a lot of inner peace. The adoption file has certainly has taken me on a surprising journey to self knowledge.

I did not know it then but it was the jumping off point to meet living descendants of my grandparents after first having the good fortune to discover in only one year’s time with persistence and determination who all 4 of my original grandparents were. This included also doing the 23 and Me test. My latest joys are communicating with the descendants in Denmark of the last grandparent I discovered, my Danish immigrant paternal grandfather. Every possible internet channel for ancestry and the inexpensive DNA testing opportunities have been used by me to achieve my own successes.

Most adoptees who do not have open adoptions with open knowledge of their origins and the circumstances of their adoptions have the same issues and desires that my mom and I experienced. The New York Times has a follow on article to Steve Inskeep’s (Op-Ed, March 28) titled “I Was Denied My Birth Story” with a “Letter to the Editor” – this time titled “For Adoptees, a Deep Yearning ‘to Know Where You Come From’.”

Activists continue to push their individual states to open adoption files for adult adoptees. It is a basic human right to know your origins and adoptees are treated like second class citizens by being denied this right in approximately half of all these United States. You can read more in this article – Adult Adoptee Access to Original Birth Certificates which was updated as recently as May 15, 2019.

Glad I Was

The author with her parents (both adoptees) apologies for the poor quality

My mom wrote about being adopted to me in an email “glad I was” but it was half-hearted because she died never knowing why. The state of Tennessee had rejected her request for her own adoption file while breaking her heart by telling her that her original mother had died some years earlier. In beginning her quest, my mom had said, “As a mother, I would want to know what became of my child.”

It is exceedingly sad that she didn’t receive her file. Her mom’s photo, holding my mom for the last time, was in it. Had she read through it, she would have known how much her mother loved her, wanted her and fought to keep her. My mom had defined her adoption as “inappropriate” in her letters to Tennessee. She was stating her belief delicately because she couldn’t reconcile having been born in Virginia and yet adopted in Tennessee while still an infant. And my mom knew all about the scandals of Georgia Tann, who’s agency my mom was adopted from.

The truth is that in the kindest of terms, my grandmother was coerced and exploited to take her baby from her for a woman who was willing to travel from Nogales Arizona to Memphis Tennessee to fetch my mom and then return to Arizona by train with an upset baby.

That remark from my mom came as I informed her I had gotten my DNA tested at Ancestry because both of my parents were adopted I didn’t know anything about my genetic origins. I had previously participated in National Geographic’s Genographic study of my maternal line (it was a gift from my brother-in-law for my birthday). The results were vague and minimal, only telling me my maternal line came out of Africa, validating my assertion that I was an Albino African – no one, including myself, could prove otherwise. The truth is I am very European, mostly Danish, then Scottish with a healthy dose of English and Irish to top it off. My mom had a smidgeon of Mali, I have a smidgeon of Ashkenazi Jew and Neanderthal.

My mom surprised me by telling me that she had also done an Ancestry DNA and had attempted family trees but they were based on the adoptive families for my dad and her self. She admitted that she lost motivation – “it just wasn’t real to me” she said – and I understood. Someday I will create REAL family trees for both of my parents. It just hasn’t been a priority nor have I had the time so far.

I recently went through a long exchange with some woman I didn’t know who had included my parents in her own family tree. She was really dense and it was difficult to get through to her that the people she was saying my parents were related to – they weren’t related to. Finally, she got it and said she would correct it when she had time. I never went back to look.

Someone recently described being adopted as being forced to play a silly game of pretend. I understand. My parents had to pretend to be the natural born child of the people who adopted them. My dad’s perspective matched that. He believed once you are adopted the people who gave you birth are insignificant. Only the people who raised you mattered. The pity is – unknown to him – at the time of his death a half-sister was living 90 miles away from him in the same state of New Mexico and could have shared with him so much about his mother and the family that came of her.

Choosing One’s Ancestors

Because I didn’t have any genetic ancestors most of my lifetime, knowing who they were and where they came from filled a void in me that my two adoptee parents were never given the opportunity to receive.  They both died knowing next to nothing and within a year of my dad dying (four months after my mom died), I knew who all 4 of them were – including my dad’s unnamed father (his mother was unwed and he was given her surname at birth).

Because thoughts about race and identity are currently prominent in the United States and because of the horrendous injustice that has occurred here all too often (so that even in other countries, the protests have also grown in awareness of the issue), I was drawn to a conversation that took place between James Baldwin and Margaret Mead in 1970 as shared by Brain Pickings.

During the week I spent in Jean Houston’s home in Oregon, she spoke frequently about her dear friend and mentor, Margaret Mead.  She even has a larger than life portrait in her front door drawing room that she suggest’s Margaret insisted be painted and delivered to her after Mead’s death.  Houston writes about the influence of Mead frequently in her book A Mythic Life.

In this conversation between Baldwin and Mead, Margaret says – “I think we have to get rid of people being proud of their ancestors, because after all they didn’t do a thing about it. What right have I to be proud of my grandfather? I can be proud of my child if I didn’t ruin her, but nobody has any right to be proud of his ancestors.”

She goes on to add – “The one thing you really ought to be allowed to do is to choose your ancestors.  We have a term for this in anthropology: mythical ancestors… They are spiritual and mental ancestors, they’re not biological ancestors, but they are terribly important.”

Mead notes that there are very few black people in America who don’t have some white ancestors, with which Baldwin agrees, and they go on to explore why the “melting pot” metaphor is deeply problematic in honoring the actual architecture of identity.

Before I knew who my parents biological/genetic parents were, I made up my racial identity.  Since my mom was born in Virginia, I thought she ended up being given up for adoption because she was half-black.  I find it interesting now as I steep myself in issues of racial identity, that I believed my dad was half-Mexican because of his coloration and how well he related to the people in that country when he crossed the border at Juarez/El Paso.

Neither of these was actually the truth.  Turns out my mom does have a bit of Mali in her DNA and that on her mother’s Scottish side there were slave owners, a fact that I am not proud of.  Yet, until I knew better, I would say I was an Albino African (and said it quite proudly as I tried to recover a sense of identity that adoption had robbed me of).

My dad’s father was a Danish immigrant and quite dark complected.  I don’t know enough about the Danish people to know why that was their skin color or why their eyes were brown.  Maybe someday, I will explore that aspect of my own racial identity.

I found this story which Baldwin conveyed in that discussion quite illuminating –

“I remember once a few years ago, in the British Museum a black Jamaican was washing the floors or something and asked me where I was from, and I said I was born in New York. He said, “Yes, but where are you from?” I did not know what he meant. “Where did you come from before that?” he explained. I said, “My mother was born in Maryland.” “Where was your father born?” he asked. “My father was born in New Orleans.” He said, “Yes, but where are you from?” Then I began to get it; very dimly, because now I was lost. And he said, “Where are you from in Africa?” I said, “Well, I don’t know,” and he was furious with me. He said, and walked away, “You mean you did not care enough to find out?”

“Now, how in the world am I going to explain to him that there is virtually no way for me to have found out where I came from in Africa? So it is a kind of tug of war. The black American is looked down on by other dark people as being an object abjectly used. They envy him on the one hand, but on the other hand they also would like to look down on him as having struck a despicable bargain.”

So it is for adoptees who’s rights are second-class, some basic rights of knowing where they came from often denied them.  Over decades worth of time, they have been robbed of that sense of identity that so many people take for granted.  However, as a woman who’s skin is white, I am grateful that racial identity was not emphasized in my childhood home and that as a white person growing up on the Mexican border, I was definitely part of a minority race.  I will admit that I didn’t suffer the slings and arrows that the black race has in this country but I could not fully embrace any idea that I was somehow superior because of the color of my skin.  I consider that one of the few blessings of being ignorant for most of my life about my racial identity.

Robbed Of Heritage

The symbolism in this painting calls to something very deep within me.  It is a painting by Barbara Taffet. In 1973, she reinvented herself as Maria Alquilar, a Latina artist whose fictive back story included a Sephardic Jewish father from Argentina. Drawing on her deep knowledge of world myths and spiritual traditions, filtered through her own personal mythology, she began creating idiosyncratic works inspired by the work of the California Sacramento-Davis area narrative expressionist, outsider and funk artists she admired and collected.

Adoption robs us of our actual cultural heritage.  All my life until very recently, I believed my dad was half-Mexican and my mom possibly half-African American.  They were both adoptees and for what little we knew about our familial roots, we could claim any story we wanted and not even our own selves knew whether it was true or not.

So along came inexpensive DNA testing.  Both my mom and I had ours done at Ancestry.  Later on, I had mine also tested at 23 and Me.  My mom has some Mali in her and so, I suspect slavery had something to do with that.  My dad’s dark complexion actually came by way of his Danish immigrant father.  I have learned there is some Ashkenazi Jew in me and suspect that comes via a family that lived for generations on Long Island New York.

Why does this painting call so deeply to my soul – there is that Jewish symbol and there is the Southwestern symbols as well.  There is a predator protecting it’s prey – my maternal grandmother was preyed upon by Georgia Tann, the famous baby thief of Memphis Tennessee.  And it is always about the bunnies in my household.  The angelic image at the top is more like a Jackrabbit which fits nicely with my New Mexican birth.

In many transracial adoptions, the very young child is not only cut off from their cultural heritage but loses contact with their native language.  It may be difficult to understand how disorienting that is but I get it.  It’s time to change the rules of the adoption game.